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Data Havens of Iceland (Part 2)

February 25, 2014

A few days ago I posted a question to Alix Johnson, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, in the US. According to her Savage Minds interviewer, Adam Fish (read interview here), Alix will be soon travelling to Iceland

to study the practices and discourses of data centers. She studies information infrastructures in capitalist economies and postcolonial politics, and researches these questions in Iceland where they take strange and fascinating forms.

This is the question I put to Alix:

Terrific interview and project, many thanks for posting this. Having worked on Spain’s indignados (15M) movement, I am oddly familiar with the Icelandic ‘revolution’, as it often crops up in Spain as an example to learn from, both politically (e.g. bankers prosecuted) and technologically (e.g. efforts to crowdsource a new constitution [eventually thwarted]). “When we grow up we want to be Icelandic”, was one of the slogans chanted in the occupied squares in 2011.

It’ll be very interesting to read about your findings in due course. It reminds me a little of Thomas H. Eriksen’s current fieldwork on fracking in a Queensland town, in Australia, as part of his comparative project Overheating. One difference here is that instead of studying the local articulations of a global environmental crisis, you are studying the local and national articulations of what we might call a global *information* crisis.

I was wondering what you thought, Alix, about Iceland’s Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) in light of Icelandic Member of Parliament, and IMMI co-founder, Birgitta Jónsdóttir’s bleak outlook on legal initiatives to create data havens given what we now know about the extent of NSA/GCHQ surveillance since the Snowden revelations. Back then, when IMMI was created in 2009, Icelandic information freedom activists were unaware of the scale and reach of US/UK surveillance. I understand that Jónsdóttir herself has run afoul of the NSA. Is IMMI still at the resolution stage? What are its prospects of becoming law?

Fortunately, she has kindly agreed for me to repost her private reply here (thanks, Alix!):

Hi John

Sorry for the slow reply! I missed the cutoff for responding on Savage Minds, but I really appreciate your comment. I know a bit about the 15M movement, but had no idea Iceland was used as a model in this way (or heard that super interesting chant!).

Yes, the last couple years have posed some challenges to IMMI ideals. The case you mention (where Member of Parliament Birgitta Jonsdóttir’s Twitter records were subpoenaed by the U.S.) is definitely one of them. I think for supporters of the “information haven,” though, this just proves the need for the IMMI – Twitter is subpoena-ble because its data and corporate structure are located in the U.S. In the world that IMMI imagines, where local alternatives are developed and hosted in information-friendlier jurisdictions, this dynamic would look very different.

As for IMMI itself, it’s being passed in pieces. Some of its provisions (like source protection) are complete; others (like the Freedom of Information Act) are pending ratification, and still others (like the Icelandic Freedom of Expression Prize) are on hold. Adding a layer of complication, some of its provisions are tied up in Iceland’s new proposed constitution, which itself has been tabled by the new governing coalition. At the same time, the 2013 election brought in three new Pirate Party MPs, who’ve expressed a commitment to seeing it through. So I’m hopeful/interested/anxious to see how it goes […].

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